California’s deserts have always fascinated me. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I visited many areas of the Sonoran, Mojave, and Great Basin in California while teaching in Southern California. Since moving north, I have often dreamed of returning. In 2020 Backcountry Press was approached by Dr. Philip Rundel from UCLA about doing a book on California Desert Plants. This was an exciting prospect and an easy decision to make. After over a year of work (he has been working on the idea on and off for 15 years) we are excited to announce that the book is done.
For me, this book is amazing because it tells the story of one of the harshest environments on Earth. There are three distinct desert areas in California—the northwestern portion of the larger Sonoran Desert, the Mojave Desert which extends beyond the state, and the western margin of the Great Basin. A key feature of the California deserts is the dominance of infrequent rainfall in the cool winter months and general absence of rainfall and associated drought in the summer months when warm temperatures are otherwise favorable for growth. The combination of these harsh conditions nurture amazing plants with a complicated variety of adaptations.
Established in 1994, the Mojave National Preserve encompasses 1.6 million acres roughly bounded by Interstates 15 and 40. Most simply pass by this region on their way to other places (Lost Wages, Nevada for example) but it is a premier desert park. This vast and varied landscape includes dunes, dry lakebeds, granites, volcanics (domes, lava flows, and cinder cones), limestones, and sedimentary deposits which support a diverse collection of plants. The preserve includes creosote bush lowlands at 880 feet near Baker all the way up to conifer woodlands at 7,929 feet on the summit of Clark Mountain. The Mojave Wilderness is 700,000 acres of the preserve.
Within the preserve is the University of California Riverside’s Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center. The University of California’s GMDRC is dedicated to academic research and teaching and access is solely through an application approval process. This was was our basecamp. I am working on a book with Philip Rundel and Bob Patterson calledCalifornia Desert Plants (Backcountry Press, late 2022) so we came to experience, explore, photograph, and write about the regional wonders. In particular, we wanted to find trees in the desert.
I have made more posts about foxtail pines than any other trees and it is thus no secret that my favorite conifer is a five-needle pine. There are a lot of thoughts and details about five-needle pines swirling around in my world these days–for better or worse (fires and climate change)–so I figure I’ll add to the story with some updates here.
I am excited to announce that I have joined the board of directors for the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation. I hope to both gain experiences and be a solid addition to the board. Check out their website and become a member if you find their message important.
Because I have joined the board, and I love five-needle pines, we are launching a webinar in December that will directly benefit the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation!
I am slowly learning about some of the shortfalls my training as a western scientist has had on my ability to interpret vegetation communities of the Klamath Mountains. What I am learning, that was never properly taught in my schooling, is that everything we see today in the Klamath Mountains was affected, to some degree, by long-term human habitation over the past ~9,000 years. For example, up north in British Columbia’s coastal temperate rainforest Fisher et al. (2019) found that the plant communities around village sites had different plant assemblages than control sites and were dominated by plants with higher nutrient requirements and a cultural significance. Consider this next time you look at an oak woodland on a river bench
Another major misconception taught in western science is the description of the assumed wild and wilderness as absent of human impact–when this is far from the truth. Much of what we have designated as wilderness was sculpted by Native People’s stewardship. For example, numerous travel routes were maintained for securing basketry, medicine, food resources, or reaching ceremonial sites (see map below).
I am excited to announce we are approaching the publication of a book 5 years in the making. As the co-editor and author of several of the chapters I am more excited for this book than any other I have written or published. To launch the approach to publication, we are offering a winter webinar series where chapter authors will present some of the highlights from their work.
In the Klamath Mountains, as in the remainder of its range in North America, whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a true summit tree that survive in only the highest subalpine conditions. Regionally, they define the extreme limits of the timber line (7,000’- 9,000’) on localized mountain tops, or sky islands, where they consummate an aesthetic splendor that rivals the finest subalpine scenery of the West. Scraggly branches splay about in the windward direction—where often just as many are dead as alive. Trees are scrupulously scattered across the landscape and thus sculpted specifically by the meager conditions offered. Centuries of slow growth are in strict compliance with the rigorous demands of sun, soil, water, and wind. On select summits a deep-time aptitude for life is exhibited through a multitude of charismatic individual forms.
I recently came upon resource created in 1907 during a trans-Klamath adventure to explore the region and document its plants. Willis Jepson’s Siskiyou Expedition began in Yreka on July 1st and ended back in Etna on July 25th. Over that time the expedition team traveled from the eastern Klamath to the coast—and back again—using a combination of routes including poorly developed roads, the Kelsey Trail, river corridors, and portage boats guided by Karuk men. I encourage you to read more of Jepson’s journal and his colorful descriptions of the plants and places along the way. The journal offers an ecologist’s view, 110 years back, to a northwest California vastly different than today.
“Whether old or young, sheltered or exposed to the wildest of gales, this tree is ever found irrepressibly and extravagantly picturesque and offers a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any other conifer I know of.”
The following excerpt is from my book Conifer Country. I was inspired to publish it here after a recent trip with my son to visit and measure the Klamath Mountain champion foxtail pine. After this trip, the foxtail pine is his favorite tree species too 🙂
California’s endemic foxtail pines have established two esoteric populations abscinded by nearly 500 miles of rolling mountains and deep valleys. The species was first described by John Jeffrey near Mount Shasta in 1852 , which was most likely a population near Mount Eddy or in the Scott Mountains. Later, this species was discovered in the high elevations (9,000’-12,000’) of the southern Sierra Nevada. The ecological context of Klamath foxtail pines in the Klamath Mountains differs drastically from that in the Sierra Nevada due to the divergence of these populations in the mid-Pleistocene. Though separated over one million years ago, both subspecies exhibit a radiance and individuality for which I honor them as my favorite conifer.
With separation in space and time, divergence—including cone orientation, seed character, crown form, foliage, and even chemistry—has occurred between the two subspecies. Another reason for these variations are genetic bottlenecks that have been promulgated by spatially restricted microsite adaptations, particularly in the Klamath Mountains . Northern foxtail pines (var. balfouriana) are isolated on sky islands—local mountain tops and ridgelines—from 6,500’ to 9,000’ in the eastern half of the Klamath Mountains. By my count there are 16 isolated sub-populations each consisting of one to several isolated mountain-top populations, except in the Trinity Alps where they are locally common in the more contiguous high elevations. On these sites, proper geologic, topographic, and climatic conditions have offered synergistic alliances with shade-tolerant and faster-growing firs and hemlocks.
The slow movement of water through a fen builds, over long periods of time, to the formation of peatlands. The formation of peatlands requires a combination of processes that most commonly occur in flat areas in both tropical and boreal regions. Because of variable topography, geology, and even water chemistry in the mountains, peatlands are generally rare.
In temperate mountains, rare peatlands form over mellennia if perennial soil saturation, low mineral soil deposition, erosion rates, and net storage of soil carbon resulting from plant productivity complement each other perfectly. In arctic and alpine environments, the formation of peat is often associated with peat moss (Sphagnum spp.). In the temperate regions peatlands are usually dominated and formed by sedges (Carex spp.).
I have been fascinated for a long time with the conifers of the Klamath Mountains. While there are many places across the region that have a high density of conifer species, one of the hotspots is in the Russian Wilderness in an area known as the Miracle Mile. It has a long, storied history of discovery, research, conservation, and recreation.
If you visit, tread lightly and leave no trace. Day hiking is the best way to see it and preserve the unique natural features of the area. What follows is a summary of my presentation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I learned about this project in 2014 and have been following it closely ever since. In late April, 2020 my friends Justin Garwood, Ken Lindke, and Mike Van Hattem (with other co-authors) published the first definitive paper on glaciers in the Klamath Mountains. While the news is bleak, their diligent research documents the changes in the Klamath for hundreds of years through the eyes of the highest peaks and watersheds in the range. Please enjoy the summary that follows.
BLURB FROM THE TALK: Humboldt County educator, author, and ecologist Michael Kauffmann has been tracking the status and distribution of Klamath Mountain conifers for over 15 years and his book, Conifer Country, if the definitive field guide to the region. Michael will take us from mountain summits to coastal river valleys and provide updates on the status and distribution of many of these charismatic conifers based on field work in the summer of 2019 with the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team. He will also share photos and stories about exciting plants from the region.
Where Highway 101 hugs the Pacific Coast in Humboldt County, north through Del Norte County, Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are loosing needles at an alarming rate. This phenomenon, caused by the non-native green spruce aphid (Elatobium abietinum), grew into a noticeable problem in winter 2019-2020. The aphid thrives during winters with warmer than normal temperatures. Last year’s defoliation was especially severe in Oregon and the aphids continues to move south. Sitka spruce decline in California is in its early stages.
Exploring the remnant old-growth of the Humboldt County Headwaters
In late 1985, a family company in Humboldt County was over taken by a large corporation from Texas. Within a few months, the profit-driven Maxxam Corporation submitted (under the name Pacific Lumber) a furtive timber harvest plan with a rush order to log some of the last, largest swaths of remaining old-growth redwoods in the world. Thankfully, a small group of concerned environmentalists were watching. Leading the guard was Greg King who, along with others, organized and Headwaters Forest Campaign which soon became the largest forest protection civil disobedience demonstration in America’s history.
From Alaska south to Oregon western redcedar (Thuja plicata) is the signature tree of the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest. It has mythic importance to native people, as entire civilizations were sustained, in large part, by this species. Natives of the Pacific Northwest regarded the species as a “Long Life Maker” (Stewart 1984) because they used it for canoes, paddles, houses, roofs, clothes, bedding, rope, cooking, and even medicine. Few giant trees were actually felled before the arrival of Europeans because old snags were usable for many years after death. Highly resistant to rot, the snags or parts of live trees would be harvested instead of the entire live tree. After building a dugout canoe from a tree, Lewis and Clark named it “arbor vitae,” Latin for “tree of life” (Arno 2007).
In conjunction with the Klamath National Forest and the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team, I completed a mapping and inventory project for Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) in California. The first part of this project was along the Siskiyou Crest, near the Oregon-California border. This post is about the populations in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.
In 2016 I embarked on a mapping and inventory project for yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in California. At the time, I called yellow-cedar California’s rarest conifer. In 2019, new discoveries on the north slopes of Copper Butte and Preston Peak brought the total hectares of yellow-cedar in California to ~21 hectares. With this new data, and that collected in this project, we now know Abies amabilis is California’s rarest conifer*! See table below for stand data summary.
*This excludes the neoendemic California cypresses.
I first visited this area in 2004 when my friend Jay and I attempted an ambitious loop starting from the Wooley Creek Trailhead, to the headwaters at Wooley Lake, back to Hancock Lake, and then laboring along the non-existent trail on Steinacher Ridge back to our car. This was the first major hike I took in the Marble Mountain Wilderness and my encounter with Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) around the Diamond Lake – English Peak region inspired the writing of my first book, Conifer Country.
Exploring upper Copper and Indian creeks for yellow-cedar
I have been mapping and inventorying yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in California for the past four years. This process could have been much more efficient if it wasn’t for the 2018 Eclipse Complex and the 2019 Natchez Fire (more below) that virtually closed the Siskiyou Wilderness for the past two summers.
Successful surveys before this year have doubled the previously known area of this rare conifer from approximately 5 hectares in 2015 to 11 hectares by 2018. One of the largest gaps in surveys was within upper Indian and Copper creeks in the Klamath River watershed. I predicted this is where the largest stands of the species would be–little did I know how large an area I would find.
In conjunction with the Klamath National Forest and the California Native Plant Society Vegetation Team, I began a mapping and inventory project for Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) in California. The first part of this project was along the Siskiyou Crest, near the Oregon-California border. Later this summer I will visit the other population in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.
Pacific silver fir in California can easily be overlooked because of its similarity to white fir (Abies concolor). Upon close inspection (and by going to specific locations) the differences will become apparent. Silver fir is identifiable in the hand because it has the most distinct and exuberant stomatal bloom of any regional tree. Like grand fir (and regionally white fir) the tips of the needles are notched. The needles splay from the branch on only one side often in a perfect arrays, fanning out in a semi-circular manner. The needles occasionally twist in this array, thus offering distinct silver flashes of the stomatal bloom on the undersides—a brilliant contrast to the dark-green upper surfaces. This is also what sets it apart from white fir, with a duller stomatal bloom. As with other Abies, the smell of crushed needles emits a resinous “pine scent.” The bark is distinct, forming long, narrow, rectangular blocking patterns that seem to melt off the trunks in silvery chunks with subtle reddish hues in the furrows. At a distance, larger trees are gradually tapered, similar to Shasta fir (Abies magnifica var. shastensis). It is an inimitable and rare experience to spend time with this beauty in the Klamath Mountains